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Full text of "A true story of the Civil War"

A True Story 

of the Civil War 

by Aldis F. Walker 



Late Lieutenant Colonel 
Eleventh Vermont Infantry 



Published by SAMUEL HARRIS 

Late 1st Lieutenant Co. A. 5th Mich. Cavalry 



W^ilh Compliments of 

SAMUEL HARRIS & CO. 

Machinists' and Manufacturers' Tools and Supplies 

114 and 116 N. Clinton St. 

Between Washington and Randolph Sts. 

CHICAGO 



Digitized by tine Internet Arciiive 

in 2010 witii funding from 

CARLI: Consortium of Academic and Researcii Libraries in Illinois 



http://www.archive.org/details/truestoryofcivilOOwalk 



A True Story of the Civil War 

By Aldis F. Walker 
Late Lieutenant Colonel Eleventh Vermont Infantry 



On the morning of September 13, 1864, Getty's Divi- 
sion moved out towards the Opequan for a recon- 
noissance. The Vermont Brigade had the advance, the 
Third and Fourth being deployed in front as skirmish- 
ers. Sheridan and Wright accompanied the column. 
At ten o'clock the skirmishers reached the creek and 
crossed it at once, meeting the rebel pickets, however, 
but a short distance up the hill beyond. Capt. Cowen's 
Battery, going into position on an elevation on the 
hither side of the little stream, opened fire, the General 
hoping thus to discover the position of the enemy's 
camps in the vicinity, their strength, and other informa- 
tion of that nature. The battery could be plainly seen 
from the opposite side; the skirmishers who had 
crossed were showing an occasional puff of smoke from 
their rifles, while the rest of the Division were massed 
in a wood, a quarter of a mile behind the artillery. The 
grove was clean and the shade was dense ; the men were 

1 



scattered in groups among the stacks of arms, chatting 
carelessly or playing their simple games. 

The enemy presently planted a heavier battery than 
Cowen's upon a hill on the opposite side of the creek 
and returned his fire ; their first few shells, being fired 
at too high an elevation, passed over his guns at which 
they were aimed, ploughing through and exploding 
among the troops of the Division which lay concealed 
in the timber. Several were wounded, and the lines 
were formed for removal to some other position, but 
it being noticed that the missiles began to fall short of 
us, we were soon convinced that our situation was 
unknown to the enemy, and in a few minutes the danger 
was over. 

Among those who were wounded on this 
occasion was Lieutenant Harry E, Bedell of the 
Eleventh Vermont. He was a man of splendid 
physique, muscular and athletic, over six feet high, 
about twenty-eight years of age, a farmer, married, 
and the father of two or three children. An unex- 
ploded shell had crashed through his left leg above 
the knee, leaving flesh at either side, and a most 
ghastly mass of mangled muscles, shattered bones, 
and gushing arteries between. As he lay upon the 
ground he screamed continually, "Cord it ! Cord it ! 
Don't let me bleed to death !" The first rude tourni- 
quet which a friend attempted to apply broke under 
the twisting of the ramrod, and allowed the spurting 
torrent again to flow. But when the compression 
was complete, he became quiet under the perhaps 
imaginary impression of temporary security, allowing 

2 



himself to be lifted upon a stretcher and borne away 
to the surgeons and their ambulances without a groan. 
An operation was speedily performed. The leg was 
amputated at the upper third, everything being done 
for the sufferer that science and personal regard could 
suggest and the rude circumstances permitted. 

Still there was very little hope. Though his 
natural vigor was in his favor, his very size and the 
muscular strength on which he had prided himself 
were against him, for it was computed that over sixty- 
four square inches of flesh were laid bare by the 
surgeon's knife. And it was also found that his right 
hand had been seriously injured, the bones of three 
fingers being fractured and comminuted. The oper- 
ation already performed had been so severe that it 
was thought best not to attempt the treatment of the 
hand until it was seen whether or not he would rally 
from the shock of the wounds and the amputation. 
We returned to our camp about nightfall ; the journey 
was a terrible trial to the wounded man. An ambu- 
lance under the most favorable circumstances is 
hardly a "downy bed of ease," and the jolting this 
remnant of a man for miles across the country, over 
fences and walls half torn down, and across ditches 
partially filled with rails, reduced the chances of his 
life to hardly one in a thousand, his immediate death 
being expected every moment. But, sustained by 
stimulants and his indomitable courage, at last in the 
darkness he reached the army lines alive. 

Fortunately a house was accessible, and the use 
of a vacant room in its second story was obtained, 



where Bedell was placed on a tick hastily stuffed 
with straw and resting on the floor. And to the 
surprise of every one he survived the night ; a little 
hope even of saving his life was awakened. On the 
second day after the skirmish the surgeons decided 
to attempt the re-habilitation of the shattered hand. 
A finger or two were removed, the broken bones 
were adjusted, and the patient rallied in good spirits 
from the second administration of chloroform and 
shock to the system. But his struggle for life was 
only just commenced. After a few days of such rest 
as his miserable pallet could afford, orders were 
issued, in preparation for the coming battle of the 
Opequan, that all sick and wounded should be at once 
removed to Harper's Ferry, twenty miles distant. 
Army wagons and ambulances were therefore loaded 
with the unfortunates, and an attempt was made to 
transport poor Bedell with the rest. But previously 
endured a rougher journey, it was while his wounds 
were, as wounds are for the first few hours, partially 
benumbed, the nerves seeming paralyzed with the 
very rudeness of the injury. Now the torn flesh had 
become inflamed and was having its revenge. 

At every motion of the ambulance he groaned 
fearfully, and it was soon apparent that to carry him a 
mile would cost him his life. He was returned to his 
straw utterly exhausted, all but expiring. 

The army was to move the next morning. The 
surgeons were forced to decide at once what they 
would do with the dying man. In fact, but one course 
was open, he must be abandoned to his fate. True, 



we were to leave him to the north of us, but in the 
Valley no attempt was ever made to cover the long 
line of our communications. Strong escorts guarded 
our supply trains, and for the rest Mosby had free 
swing. Moreover though we did not know it at the 
time, Martinsburg was thenceforth to be our base, 
instead of Harper's Ferry ; and the vicinity of Berry- 
ville, where we then were, instead of being threaded 
once in four days by our caravans, as we expected, 
was not re-visited by our troops or trains for months. 
The wounded officer was therefore left on his 
chamber floor with a soldier nurse, and such hospital 
stores as he would be likely to need before his death. 

We fought the battles of the Opequan and 
Fisher's Hill, "whirling" the enemy up the Valley, for 
a month supposing the Lieutenant dead. The attend- 
ant left with him followed us immediately; Bedell 
himself thought it best, and it was doubtless neces- 
sary, for the country swarmed with guerillas, and the 
system of bloody reprisals engaged in by Mosby and 
Custer reduced the probable life or death of the nurse 
to a simple question of time, had he remained. 

It appears that the family who allowed our 
officer the use of the naked room as a place in which 
to die, were hardly pleased with their guest ; in fact 
they seem to have been utterly destitute of sympathy, 
and to have thought it best for all concerned that he 
should leave this world and them as speedily as 
possible — and they left him at perfect liberty to do so. 
The promises they had so solemnly made us to give 
the wounded officer care and attention, were entirely 



neglected, and his chamber was never entered. 
Death, horrible in its loneliness and pain, would inevi- 
tably have come quickly, had not a Good Samaritan 
appeared. A Rebel among Rebels, there was a 
woman who most nobly proved herself to unite with a 
tender heart the rarest courage and perseverance be- 
yond account. 

Mrs. Bettie Van Metre was a Virginian, born in the 
Luray Valley ; scarcely twenty at the time in question, 
and of attractive personal appearance. She had been 
educated in comfortable circumstances, and before 
the war her husband had been moderately wealthy, 
but now his farm was as barren as a desert, not a 
fence to be seen, and nothing to protect had any en- 
closure remained ; there was a mill upon the premises, 
but the miller had gone to fight for his country, as he 
believed, and there was now no grain left in the 
country to be ground. Officers who had called at her 
door, remarked the brave attempt at cheerfulness 
which so manifestly struggled with her sorrow, and 
treated her grief with deference. For this delicately 
nurtured girl was living alone in the midst of war, 
battles had raged around her very dwelling, she was 
entirely at the mercy of those whom she had been 
taught to believe to be her deadly enemies, and who 
held her husband and brother prisoners in Fort Dela- 
ware, taken while fighting in the Confederate army, the 
brother being, until long after this time, supposed to 
be dead. Her only companion was a little girl, per- 
haps ten years of age, her niece. There this young 
woman and this child were waiting in their anxiety 



and desolation, waiting and praying for peace. We 
should hardly expect the practice of active, laborious, 
gratuitous benevolence under such circumstances, but 
we shall see. 

It is not known how Mrs. Van Metre learned 
that a Union officer was dying of wounds and neglect 
in the house of her neighbor, but no sooner had she 
made the discovery than all her womanly sympathy 
was aroused. As she would have longed to have her 
husband or her brother treated under similar circum- 
stances, so she at once resolved to treat their foe. 
She would not be moved by the sneers and taunts 
which were sure to come, but she would have him at 
her own house and save him if she could. 

The Lieutenant had now been entirely neg- 
lected for a day or two longer; he had resigned himself 
to death, when this good woman entered his chamber 
and with kindly words called back his spirit from the 
mouth of the grave. 

She had been allowed to keep an apology for a 
horse, so old and broken-winded and rheumatic that 
he was not worth stealing, and also a rickety wagon. 
With the assistance of a neighbor whose color per- 
mitted him to be humane, she carried the sufferer to 
her house, and at last he found himself in a clean and 
comfortable bed, his wounds washed and his bandages 
cleansed, and best of all his wants anticipated by a 
gentle female tenderness that inspired him with sweet 
thoughts of his home, his family, and his life even yet 
perhaps to be regained. 

The physician of the neighborhood, a kind old 



gentleman, was at once summoned from a distance of 
several miles, and uniting personal sympathy with 
professional zeal, he promised his daily attendance 
upon the invalid. The chance was still but a slender 
one, so much had been endured, and so little vigor 
remained, yet those two good people determined to 
expend their most earnest endeavors in the almost 
desperate attempt to save the life of an enemy. 

And they succeeded. The details of conva- 
lescence are always uninteresting; it is enough to say 
that Bedell lay for many days wrestling with death, 
but at last he began to mend, and from that time his 
improvement was rapid. But although Mrs. Van Metre 
and the good doctor were able to supply the Lieuten- 
ant's most pressing wants, still much more than they 
could furnish was needed for the comfort of the invalid, 
and even for the proper treatment of his wounds. No 
stimulants could be obtained except the vilest apple-jack 
and the necessity for them seemed absolute ; no clothing 
was to be had and he was still in his bloody garments 
of blue ; delicate food was needed, but the impoverished 
Virginia larder had none but what was simple and 
coarse. 

At Harper's Ferry, however, there was a depot 
of our Sanitary Commission and stores in abundance. 
Some one must undertake a journey thither. It was 
a long day's ride to make the distance and return, and 
success was by no means assured even if the store- 
house could be reached. It was in the charge of 
strangers and enemies. The Lieutenant was too 
feeble to write, and even if he had been able to do so, 

8 



there was no method of authenticating his signature. 
But a woman would be far more Hkely to succeed 
than a man, and in fact no man would be allowed to 
pass within the limits of the garrison encircling 
Harper's Ferry. So it came about that the feeble 
Rosinante and the rattling wagon and the brave-hearted 
solitary driver, made the dangerous journey and 
brought back a feast of good things for the sufferer. 

The picket had been seduced by her eloquence 
to send her to headquarters, under charge of a guard 
which watched her carefully as a probable spy. The 
General in command had seen fit to allow her to 
carry away such trifling articles as the Commission 
people would be willing to give and although the 
chances were even that the gifts would be used in 
building up some wounded rebel, still the earnestness 
and the apparent truthfulness of her entreaty for 
relief overbore all scruples ; the old-fashioned vehicle 
was loaded with the wished for supplies and the sus- 
picious guard escorted the cargo beyond the lines. 

The trip was thereafter repeated week by week, 
and when letters were at length received in answer 
to those deposited by the fair messenger, postmarked 
among the Green Mountains, her triumph was com- 
plete, and her draft good for anything the Sanitary 
treasury contained. The only lingering doubt was in 
regard to the enormous amount of whiskey the in- 
valid required. Mrs. Van Metre, however, explained 
that it was needed for diplomatic as well as medicinal 
purposes. Of course it had been bruited about among 
the neighbors that the miller's wife was nursing a 



Federal officer. In that region now abandoned to the 
rule of Mosby and his men, concealment was essential. 
Therefore, the old men who had heard of the con- 
valescent must be taken into confidence and pledged 
to secrecy, a course rendered possible only by the 
liberal use of the Spiritus Frumenti. Under the in- 
fluence of such liquor as had not been guzzled in the 
Valley since the peaceful days of Buchanan, the 
venerable rascals were easily convinced that such a 
shattered life as that of the Lieutenant could not 
greatly injure their beloved Confederacy. 

Five weeks after Bedell received his wound, our 
army was encamped on Cedar Creek, and Sheridan 
was in Washington. The Lieutenant greatly needed 
his valise from our baggage wagons. Therefore a 
journey of twenty miles up the Valley was planned, 
which brought our heroine and her little niece to the 
army again, with a few words by the maimed right 
hand of her charge as her credentials. Our feelings 
of wonder and admiration were most intense, as we 
learned from her simple story, that our favorite who 
was dead was alive again, and felt how much true 
heroism her modest words concealed. She had 
plainly totally abandoned herself for weeks to the care 
of a suffering enemy, and yet she did not seem to 
realize that she deserved any credit for so doing, or 
that every woman would not have done as much. 
We loaded her with the rude attentions of the camp, 
and she spent the night comfortable (from a military 
point of view) in a vacant tent at General Getty's 
headquarters. The desired valise was then at Win- 
chester but she obtained it on her return, 

10 



The next daybreak found us fighting the Battle of 
Cedar Creek. Amid the mounting in hot haste and the 
thronging confusion of the morning's surprise, General 
Getty found time to commit his terrified guests to the 
care of an orderly, who by a circuitous route con- 
ducted them safely out of the battle. 

While our army was near Berryville in September, 
some of General Getty's staff-officers had called upon 
Mrs. Van Metre, and had persuaded her to prepare 
for them a meal or two from the army rations, there 
being a magnetism in female cookery that the blades 
of the staff were always craving. In her visit to the 
army just mentioned, she learned that one of those 
casual acquaintances had fallen at the former battle 
of the Opequan, and that his body was still lying 
somewhere on that wild battle-field. Seizing the 
earliest opportunity after her return, she personally 
searched all through the territory between Opequan 
Creek and Winchester, amid the carrion and the 
graves, until she found at last the rude board with its 
almost obliterated inscription that fixed the identity 
of the too scantily covered corpse. Shocked at the 
sight, for the rain had exposed the limbs, and the 
crows had mangled them, she procured a coffin and 
laborers from Winchester and had the remains 
decently interred in the cemetery there at her own 
expense. Then she addressed a letter to his friends 
giving them the information she possessed, and they 
subsequently recovered the relics, thanking God and 
their unknown benefactor. 

11 



We heard nothing further from the Lieutenant 
for months. We eventually learned, however, that 
after a long period of such careful nursing, varied only 
by the weekly errand of Mrs. Van Metre to Harper's 
Ferry for letters and supplies, the prudent doctor at 
last gave his consent that Bedell should attempt the 
journey home. Armed now with a pair of Sanitary 
crutches, he doubted not that he could make his way, 
if he once could reach the Union lines. But the 
difficulty of getting to Harper's Ferry cost him much 
anxiety. Though at various times forty guerillas to- 
gether had been in and about the house where he lay, 
the watchful care of his protector had thus far kept 
them in ignorance of his presence. This journey, 
however, was likely to prove even more difficult to 
manage. At length one of the toddy-drinking neigh- 
bors while relating his trials and losses, chanced to 
mention the seizure by our troops of a pair of his 
mules months before, and the fact that a negro had 
since seen them in the Martinsburgh corral. A happy 
thought struck the Lieutenant ; he at one assured the 
old gentleman that if he could only be placed (what 
there was left of him) in safety at the Ferry, the 
mules should be returned. The promise might per- 
haps be considered rash, seeing that Martinsburgh 
was twenty-five miles from Harper's Ferry, under a 
different commander, that it was very decidedly un- 
usual to restore property seized from the enemy for 
government use, that the chattels were probably long 
ago far up the Valley, and especially that Bedell 
could not have, in any event, the faintest shadow of 

12 



authority in the premises. But the old man jumped 
at the offer and the bargain was struck. 

It was decided that Mrs. Van Metre should ac- 
company the Lieutenant home, both for his sake as 
he was yet months from recovery, and for her own 
as she had now lived for years in unwonted desti- 
tution and anxiety, while a quiet, comfortable home 
was thenceforth assured to her by her grateful charge 
until the return of peace; and who knew if she might 
not in some way regain her own husband, as she had 
restored another's. 

So the party was made up and the journey com- 
menced. The officer was carefully hidden in a 
capacious farm wagon, under an immense heap of 
straw, and though two marauding parties were met 
during the day, the cheerful smile of the well-known 
farmer disarmed suspicion. The escape was success- 
ful. The clumsy vehicle drew up before headquarters 
at Harper's Ferry, and Bedell, saluted once more by 
a sentinel as he doffed his hat to the flag he had suf- 
fered for, headed the procession to the general's room. 

The unique party told its own story. The tall 
lieutenant, emaciated, staggering on his unaccustomed 
crutches, the shrinking woman, timid in the presence 
of authority though so heroic in the presence of death, 
and the old Virginian, aghast at finding himself actually 
in the lion's den, but with the burden of an anxious 
longing written on his wrinkled face, each character 
so speaking, the group needed only this simple intro- 
duction : ^'General, this man has brought me in and 
wants his mules." 

13 



General Stevenson, warmhearted and sympa- 
thetic, comprehended the situation at once. He made 
the party seat themselves before him and tell him all 
their story. He fed them at his table and lodged 
them in his quarters. He telegraphed for a special 
leave of absence for the officer and secured free 
transportation for both him and his friend, and finally 
most surprising of all possible good fortune, he sent 
the venerable charioteer to Martinsburgh, the happy 
bearer of a message that secured the restoration of his 
long-eared quadrupeds. 

On the next day the lieutenant and Mrs. Van Metre 
went by rail to Washington, where of course every- 
one treated them kindly and gave them all possible 
assistance. When the paymaster had been visited and 
all preparations made for their journey north, it was 
determined to make an effort to secure the release of 
the rebel prisoner. So it came about that the quasi- 
widow and the crippled officer called together upon 
Secretary Stanton. The busiest of all busy men found 
time to hear their story, and despite the "stony heart" 
attributed to him by his enemies, he was deeply affected 
by the touching tale, and the ocular demonstration of 
its truth in the person of the wounded soldier. Tears 
rolled down his cheeks as he gave the order requested, 
earned by acts that few women would have dared ; 
and the couple with glad hearts, crossing the street to 
the office of the Commissary General of Prisoners, 
presented the document to the clerk in charge to be 
vised. But here another difficulty arose. Some one 
had blundered, and on searching the records of the 

14 



office the required name could not be found. The cruel 
report was made that no such prisoner had been taken. 

Nevertheless, Mrs. Van Metre's information had 
been direct and her conviction of some mistake was 
sure. They laid the case before General Hitchcock, 
then in charge of that office, and again the story was 
argument enough. With trembling hands the old 
gentleman endorsed the order : ''The commanding 
officer at Fort Delaware will release any person the 
bearer may claim as her husband !" 

The prison barracks were quickly reached. The 
Commandant caused the thousands of grizzly captives 
to be paraded. File after file was anxiously. Oh ! how 
anxiously, scanned by the trembling woman, and when 
the circuit was almost completed, when her sinking 
heart was almost persuaded that death instead of 
capture had indeed been the fate of the one she loved, 
she recognized his face despite his unkept hair and his 
tattered garments, and fell upon the neck of her hus- 
band as he stood in the weary ranks. 

A few days more and the two families were at rest 
in Bedell's New England home. 

Lieutenant Bedell continued to improve with the 
genial surroundings of his home and family and the 
beautiful scenery of the green hills of his native state. 
He kept Mr. and Mrs. Van Metre with him until the 
war closed. Lieutenant Bedell and his noble wife gave 
them all the comforts and pleasures that open hands 
and loving hearts or money could buy. 

The story of the noble and angelic acts of Mrs. 
Van Metre were told all over that part of the state, 

15 



and hundreds came to see the heroine that had so 
nobly cared for and nursed back to Hfe one of their 
neighbors. 

Soon after the close of the war, the Van Metres 
expressed a desire to return to their old home. Lieu- 
tenant Bedell went to the bank and drawing a large 
sum of money, the three started for West Virginia. 
They stopped a few days at Baltimore and Bedell 
bought lumber and trimmings for a house better and 
more modern than the one that was destroyed by the 
vandals of one side or the other, furniture to furnish 
it, material to fence the whole farm, fruit trees of all 
kinds to set out an orchard that had been cut down, 
and bought a team with harness and wagon and farm- 
ing implements. 

Bedell stayed with them until the house was 
finished, the farm well fenced, the trees set for a new 
orchard, a fine flower garden in the front yard, and 
after seeing that they had plenty of good clothing to 
last them for a year and provisions to last until they 
could raise a crop, Bedell bade them an affectionate 
farewell and returned to his Green Mountain home. 

Mrs. Van Metre died about the year 1898. What 
joy there must have been in heaven when her soul 
left this body and met by a countless number of angels 
singing her glory. The gates were likely wide open 
and the King said, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, 
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founda- 
tion of the world. For I was sick and ye visited me ; I 
was a stranger, and ye took me in." 

16 



SAMUEL HARRIS & CO. 

Machinists' and Manufacturers' Tools and Supplies 

114 and 116 N. Clinton St. 

CHICAGO 



The henneberry company. Printers, chicaro